ne of them teaches on an urban block in Cambridge, the other at a suburban school in Sudbury surrounded by green. But the identical twin sisters have each taught for 50 years, in careers that still lure them so passionately they are often the first teachers to arrive each morning.
Many days, they spend more than 12 hours in their classrooms, and longer on Fridays. They send birthday cards to every student they’ve ever taught whose address they still have, totalling hundreds of cards a year. At 70, they are now teaching the children of former students, and they have no plans to stop.
“People are always asking me when I’m going to retire,” said Rosalind O’Sullivan, who teaches junior kindergarten at Fletcher Maynard Academy in Cambridge. “But every year, I like it better than the year before. Every year, I think I can be better.”
O’Sullivan and Florence Aldrich-Bennett, who teaches third grade at the Peter Noyes School in Sudbury, grew up as the oldest of six children in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and say they always knew they wanted to teach. The acceptable career options for women at the time were few — teaching and nursing — but they always loved kids, baby-sitting their younger siblings and playing school.
They both graduated from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a women’s school that merged with Boston College in the 1970s, and then earned master’s degrees at Lesley University. They both have spent their entire careers in the school district that gave them their first job.
Both sisters say they worried a lot as children.
“My sister and I were very conscientious,” said Aldrich-Bennett, who lives in Concord. “I think firstborns are like that.”
O’Sullivan was so nervous that she didn’t like school. She still remembers the fifth-grade teacher who made fun of the twins for being short. (They’re both a little under 4 feet 11 inches tall.) Now, as teachers, they don’t want their students to worry the way they did.
“I want them to feel valued and loved and cherished and nurtured and safe,” O’Sullivan said. “I just want them to feel like it’s a cocoon.”
Aldrich-Bennett said, “I tell them that in my classroom, they’re not allowed to worry, that I’ll do all the worrying for them. They should feel really good about themselves, and feel that they can really do well and that they can just soar.”
O’Sullivan has also taught third- and fourth-graders, but most of her career has been teaching kindergarteners.
However, about 10 years ago, she helped design Cambridge’s program for 4-year-olds, and has taught junior kindergarten at Fletcher Maynard ever since.
“I feel like I died and went to heaven,” she said. “I thought kindergarten was fun, but I think junior kindergarten is even better. It’s like a gift. Those little faces when they come in — oh my gosh, it’s a wonderful age.”
O’Sullivan, who is divorced and lives in Burlington, always wanted a big family. She has a daughter and two granddaughters whom she adores, but she also has an enduring connection with her students.
“Once you are a member of the Mrs. O’Sullivan family, you are always a member of the Mrs. O’Sullivan family,” says Fletcher Maynard principal Robin Harris.
O’Sullivan gets her children out of the classroom on field trips as much as she can, applying for grants to cover the cost of the school bus. She takes her kids to the Harvard Museum of Natural History six times a year, to the Museum of Science, anyplace that shows them all the world has to offer.
“For many of our children, they don’t have as many of these exposures as children who live in the suburbs,” Harris said.
O’Sullivan gets to know the parents of every student. If they don’t come to school, she visits them at home. And she stays in touch with many. Three years ago, she taught a boy who returned to Saudi Arabia. Now, every Sunday, she Skypes with the family.
Once she was walking through a dark alley near Central Square when three men came up behind her. She got nervous and started walking faster. As they got to the end of the alley, she heard one of them say, “Mrs O! Thank you for the birthday card.”
In the classroom where Aldrich-Bennett teaches, she has taped riddles to the walls and written her daily note to students on a white board: “I’m very glad to see you,” she began. “Of course, I was thinking about you over the weekend.”
The third-graders say “Mrs. AB” makes their work fun, even the parts that might otherwise be a bit boring.
“She’s like a young old person,” said one boy, in admiration. “Dude!” chided his friend across the table.
They know well her hopes for them. “We don’t have to worry,” said one student. “Only she worries.”
On this day, the third-graders were learning about the Pilgrims.
“Who would like to say one word that you think of if you thought of being on the Mayflower for 66 days?” Aldrich-Bennett asked. “And remember, it has to be an appropriate word.”
“Stressful,” suggested one student. “Crowded,” added another.
“Pukish,” said one boy.
“What do you mean by that?” the teacher asked.
“There was lots of puking going on, throwing up,” the boy said.
Aldrich-Bennett, a widow with two stepchildren, typically gets to school before principal Annette Doyle.
“She is here before everyone else. She is here after everyone else,” Doyle said. “I don’t know when she sleeps.”Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.